March 11, 2022

The Skills to Operate Your Business Aren't What You Think They Are

You wouldn’t ask an employee to operate a machine - let alone a complex machine critical to your business - without the necessary skills.

You’d enable them first with safety skills, operating instructions and troubleshooting guidance. You’d provide hours of training and practice, and a set of resources to help.

You’d be horrified if they disregarded the experience of more seasoned operators or ignored a suspicious rumble without stopping the machine to investigate.

Yet, you ask employees to “operate” your workplace culture all the time - without guidance, skills or practice.

Every time they take a “hammer'' to a delicate issue or ignore the rumble of a colleague’s misgiving, they risk irreparable damage to the organization’s ability to function, much less to grow.

Culture operates the "machine" that makes all the other machines work because it’s the system that engages everyone to work together - or not. It's the firmware that enables your organization to function.

It doesn’t matter whether you have a collaborative culture, an innovative culture or a hard-edged execution culture. The skills your colleagues use to engage with each other - their relational skills -  are critical to the viability and sustainability of the culture that drives your business.

What are relational skills?

  1. Listening with humility. Many times we listen only to wait our turn to speak. But truly listening enhances our capacity for innovation.
  2. Asking good questions. Not “gotcha” or test questions, but curious questions with an authentic interest in learning. Asking good questions unleashes new ideas by surfacing hidden insights.
  3. Suspending known truths to engage with the perspectives of others. We become entrenched when we see the world only through the things we already know. By challenging our assumptions, we open the possibilities to learn from each other and to reframe our mental models.
  4. Debating or disagreeing with respect and without retribution. In the healthiest and most productive organizations, people feel empowered to speak up and safe to experiment and fail. This cannot happen without psychological safety, grounded in trust and mutual regard.
  5. Widening the circle of empathy. Science confirms that despite best intentions, we are most empathetic with people we already know or who look and feel like us. By deepening our relationships at work, we widen the circle of empathy and naturally expand inclusion and belonging.

These relational skills are not warm, fuzzy or optional. Not if you want to succeed or grow. They are the seeds of collective intelligence: the superpower hidden in the connections between your people. This can give your company an edge in everything you do. But you can only unlock it by learning the five skills above and practicing them, relentlessly.

And none of the this can be done alone.

In his famous annual letter to CEOs, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink asked a set of important questions:

“What are you doing to deepen the bond with your employees? How are you ensuring that employees of all backgrounds feel safe enough to maximize their creativity, innovation and productivity? Where and how we work will never be the same as it was. How is your company’s culture adapting to this new world?”

In the post-pandemic world, we clearly need to be ready for anything. So don't just train people to run machines. Give them the skills they need to successfully operate your most important machine – your culture. This is the engine that runs everything else. And collective intelligence is the fuel it needs to propel you forward instead of holding you back.

Image Credit:
D. Napier & Son Ltd, 'Aero Engine in the Making', England, circa 1918, via Museums Victoria, on Unsplash
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